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Lutherans are one of the three largest religious denominations; Latvian Evangelical Lutheran Church consists of 292 congregations, mainly in Kurzeme, Zemgale and Vidzeme. The Church is one of the biggest proprietors of land and buildings in Latvia – currently the Church together with its congregations owns more than a thousand estates the value of which is estimated at about hundred million lats. Many Lutheran churches are significant architectural monuments and repositories of sacral art.
After the church split into Roman Catholics and Protestants Latvia, being a country under the continuous influence of German culture, fell into the sphere of Lutheran reformation and the Lutheran Church in the 16th century right after the start of reformation in Germany. The first Lutheran congregations established in Riga in 1521 in St Peter’s Church under the leadership of Andrejs Knopkens and in the year 1522 in St Jacob’s Church under the leadership of Silvestrs Tegetmeijers, both becoming the first evangelic priests of Riga and the entire Livonia.
The mighty churches of Riga
The history of the Lutheran churches can by no means be separated from the history of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. During the centuries congregations of all three denominations exercised themselves in many churches one after another – as soon as the secular power changed and depending on its official religion, the support to one or another church changed along with it, as well as encouragement for turning to another religion, etc.
For instance, Riga Dome Cathedral is the Cathedral of Archbishop of Latvia Evangelical Lutheran Church, opened to the tourists and musical events. The phenomenal acoustics of the ancient cathedral vaults and the exceptional organic music has turned Dome Cathedral into a world famous concert hall. The foundation stone of Dome Cathedral was laid on 25 July 1211 and the Cathedral has maintained quite a lot of testimonials of medieval interior design.
Riga Dome Cathedral has acquired world-wide fame with its organ, built in 1883-1884 by the company E.F.Walcker&Co, which is recognized as one of the most valuable historic organs in the world.
The highest spire in Old Riga belongs to St Peter’s Church – it was the highest wooden building (120.7 m) in Europe before the World War II.
The amazing Kurzeme churches
There are many beautiful and peaceful Lutheran churches in Kurzeme. The most brilliant manifestations to crafting traditions of this region are called ‘the special Kurzeme school’. Wooden craft, from church seats to sophisticated and detailed carvings, wall and ceiling paintings, sculptures, not to mention organ design performed in perfect mannerism, baroque or rococo style amaze everyone who opens the heavy doors to these seemingly reserved churches.
One of the most beautiful late baroque style churches in Latvia – Liepaja Holy Trinity Lutheran Church (1742 – 1758) is located in the centre of Liepaja. It has splendid baroque interior, 1100 seats, 55 m high belfry and the largest historic organ in Latvia (131 stops, 4 manuals, more than 7000 pipes –it was the largest in the world until 1912) which is still working. But one of the most outstanding wood-carving masterpieces of the Latvian baroque - altar made in 1697 by Ventspils shipyard wood-carver Nikolass Sefrenss is treasured in St Anna’s Church, the oldest church in Liepaja. Another pride of this church is the organ – the third largest in Latvia.
St Catherine Church in Kuldiga has been first mentioned in documents in 1252, but throughout centuries it has been damaged several times by fire and reconstructed. St Catherine was a court church of the first capital of the Duchy of Kurzeme and Zemgale – Kuldiga.The church altar and pulpit designed by the famous Ventspils’ wood-carver Nikolass Sefrenss, senior together with carpenter Engelein Tisen are exceptional works of art representing mannerism. Kornelijs Raneuss, junior is the author of the magnificent organ design (created during 1712-1715).
The small Apriki Church – called The Kurzeme Pearl due to its splendid interior – is enclosed by trees and located far from the city crowd in Aizpute district. The interior created by the local kurši – painters, carpenters and wood-carvers, is recognized as one of the most luxurious examples of baroque and rococo style in the Baltic region. The most ancient items are the galleries made in 1710 which are holding the organ. The galleries rest on two pillars painted in blue and - decorated with statuettes of Christ and apostles, 1.2 m high statuettes of 14 apostles and saints carved in wood are fixed in niches. The lodges of Lords are splendidly decorated with wood-carvings, painted in blue, white and gold. The pulpit designed in rococo style is a special feature, decorated with flowers and acanthus leaves carved in wood – raised by an angel’s hands. Crucifix is placed in the centre of the altar, on both sides surrounded by four Corinthian order pillars entwined by flower garlands with sculptures of St Mary and St Magdalen in between. The ceiling adds even more splendour to the interior of Apriki Church – paintings of allegoric statuettes of virtues among the clouds – if you turn your eyes to them it seems that enlightenment will pour all over.
Another pearl of Kurzeme – Ugale Lutheran Church, built at the end of the 17th century is located 27 km from Ventspils, near Riga-Ventspils motorway. The baroque style altar, pulpit and confession box was made in 1698 by an artist from Riga Johans Daniels Saua, but the magnificent organ was designed (1697-1701) by Mihaels Markvarts from Ventspils. The voluminous, plastic acanthus, flower garlands with succulent fruit and plump angels playing music impersonate the artistic perfection of the author’s individuality.
Kurzeme church ...in Riga and Spire without a church
If you have planned shorter period of time for travelling around Latvia, you can get the taste of Lutheran churches in Kurzeme already in Riga by visiting the Open-air Ethnographic Museum and watch the lutheran church built in 1704 and moved there in 1935 from the bank of Lake Usma. Ancient corporal punishment devices – pillory and stocks used to punish disobedient peasants in front of the church, are placed at the entrance. Such pillories and stocks were widely spread in Latvia and until the second half of the 19th century were considered as the regular church inventory.
The spire of the Holy Trinity Church which was destroyed during the World War II will be soon restored in Jelgava and will serve as a tourist centre, permanent exhibition and café. Holy Trinity German Evangelical Lutheran Church was the oldest in Jelgava (1574-1625), as well as the first rebuilt Lutheran church in Europe. The early baroque spire of the church was built from 1660 to 1688, the church acquired the octagonal belfry almost two hundred years later. Yet, the church with its interior was destroyed during the World War II, only the oldest part of the belfry and the church gates have remained till nowadays which like a silent and pitiful evidence of the lost glory found itself in the very town centre.
The original Vidzeme Lutheran churches
Cesis St John’s Church is the biggest medieval basilica outside Riga – 65 m high and 32 m wide triangular basilica which starts with the massive 65 m high belfry with 15 m high gothic spire and 1000 seats. In the middle of the altar one can find the altar painting „Pieta” by the famous Estonian painter Johan Keler, dated winter 1858. This Altar painting has several copies – in St Stephen Cathedral in Vienna, St Isaac’s Cathedral and Swedish Church in St Petersburg, Martin’s Church in Riga, Karkusas Congregation Church in Estonia. At the beginning of the 20th century this altar painting was considered to be one of the most expensive altarpieces in Latvia. Nowadays this is the place of performance of world famous choirs and organ music concerts, as well as International new organ players' festival. Since the church threshold is exactly 100 meters above the sea level Zilaiskalns, which is 40 km away, can be seen from the spire.
The remarkable dimensions the sanctuary of St Simeon's Church in Valmiera, built in 1283, suggest an assumption that the church was designed with the purpose for the archbishop to be able to conduct services there. The massive walls (without counter bearings) and sturdy bearings (low octagonal pilasters) indicate that the building belongs to romantic style. The church interior is decorated with precious baroque pulpit and organ gallery paintings (around the year 1730), as well as rococo organ design created by Heinrich Andreas Koncius and Joahan Stein (1752 – 1921). The altarpiece „Temptation of Christ” (1842) by K.Fogel-Fogelstein is also worthy of attention.
Krimulda Church (located between Turaida and Ragana) is one of the first in Livonia. It does not stand out for its luxurious exterior or interior, however the ancient history is its real treasure: in 1205 priest Alobrant built a church in Kubesele inhabited by Livs, nearby the burnt down castle of Kaupo (leader of Livs, turned to Christian faith, visited the Pope of Rome). Now a manor house is built on Kubesele castle mound, but at the foot of it there is a hillock which is called Kaupo burial site. Those who are not interested in the ancient history of the Baltic nations can visit meditation circle – maze of Krimulda Church which is designed after the floor maze in Chartres Cathedral, France at the beginning of the 13th century.
Lodes or Apsu Church is built as a structure of horizontal logs in pagan holy place and located in Cesis district, Taurene parish. The first church in this location was built in 1620s , but the Northern War (1700-1721) and plague placed Lode Church among those 28 destroyed Vidzeme churches mentioned in the visiting lists. In 1728 funded by the patron and proprietor of Lode Manor House Adolfs Hermans Bolto a new oak church was built, , which throughout the years has acquired a magnificent interior, organ, and the bell cast in Germany.